10 Poems for ‘Medieval Femme,’ Inspired by al-Khansa

Fatima Al Qadiri has released a “ghostly, feverish, magical album, “Medieval Femme,” inspired by the classical poetry of Arab women:

Much like the Saqi Books’ collection We Wrote in Symbols, ed. Selma Dabbagh, Fatima Al Qadiri’s haunting 2021 album “Medieval Femme” has the collection Classical Poems By Arab Women, edited by Abdullah al-Udhari as one of its origin points.

Fatima Al Qadiri, in an interview with Kaleidoscope:

I was inspired by the words of Al-Khansa, the most famous Arab female poet, who wrote about her grief and the death of her brothers. A couplet of hers really struck me, as the words in it were so surreal. She addresses her eyeball, “Oh my eye, Why do you not weep like a waterfall?” She’s freaked out by her lack of outward grief.

One of the very first tracks she recorded, she said in another interview, is “Tasakuba,” the album’s penultimate track. “It’s the only song with a sample of classical Arabic poetry by a seventh century poet,” Al Qadiri said.

It didn’t work to have the whole collection sampling classical poetry, she said:

I told myself, “Okay, I’m going to make a record using classical poetry by Arab women.” I started to find poetry samples online and attempted to write instrumentals to them. But it just wasn’t working. There was something about it that wasn’t exciting enough. But one poem remained, the one by Al-Khansa. It’s the track right before the end, “Tasakuba,” and the vocal is a sample from Youtube. But that was the only one that stayed in the record.

Still, the rich haunting sounds of the album are evocative of their starting point in poetry; translator Yasmine Seale quotes one critic as saying it’s “like music from the courts of the Abbasid Caliphate after a decadent cybernetic makeover.” It will certainly be music to listen to while reading the bilingual facing-page Library of Arabic Literature edition of al-Khansa’s poems in Seale’s translation.

Until then, ten poems to read while listening.

1. Medieval Femme

For the title song, a favorite translation (by Yasmine Seale) of a poem by Aisha al-Qurtubiyya, an Andalusian poet from Cordoba. It opens:

I am a lioness: never will I let

my being be the break

on another’s journey.

Aisha al-Qurtubiyya, translated by Yasmine Seale

You can read the rest on Sultan’s Seal.

2. A Certain Concubine

This excerpt of a poem comes from the Library of Arabic Literature’s Consorts of the Caliphs: Women and the Court of Baghdad, by Ibn al-Sāʿī, translated by Shawkat M. Toorawa and LAL editors. According to Jaafar ibn Qudamah, it was composed by Ghadir (“Inconstance”), who was enslaved by Caliph al-Hadi. From the poem, which is also an excellent breakup poem:

I spend my nights with corpses,

you spend your days with dark-eyed beauties!

Curse your new love!

Disaster strike you!

Drop dead before morning!

As I am now, may you be too!

by “Ghadir,” from Consorts of the Caliphs, by Ibn al-Sāʿī, translated by Shawkat M. Toorawa and LAL editors.

3. Sheba

For this poem, Ulayya Bint al-Mahdi’s Epigram, translated by Yasmine Seale. It opens:

To love two people is to have it

coming: body nailed to beams, 

dismemberment.

Ulayya bint al-Mahdi, translated by Yasmine Seale

This poem also appears in We Wrote in Symbols, where we learn Ulayya’s mother was a well-known singer and composer from Medina and concubine of Caliph Mahdi. Ulayya’s father died when she was young and she was brought up by her brother (the fifth Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid), who was enthralled by her music and singing.

4. Vanity

This poem-fragment comes from We Wrote in Symbols, ed. Selma Dabbagh

You don’t satisfy a girl with presents and flirting, unless knees

bang agains knees and his locks into hers with a flushing thrust.

Anonymous, from the Jahliyya period, translated by Abdullah alUdhari

5. Stolen Kiss of a Succubus

For this track, Wallada bint al-Mustakfi, translated by Wessam Elmeligi and published in We Wrote in Symbols: “By God I am fit for the highest of peaks / And I walk my walk and boast in pride. / I enable my lover to have my cheeks. / And if someone craves a kiss, I provide.”

6. Golden

This excerpt also comes from the Library of Arabic Literature’s Consorts of the Caliphs: Women and the Court of Baghdad, by Ibn al-Sāʿī, translated by Shawkat M. Toorawa and LAL editors. It’s by Inan, daughter of Abdallah, who Ibn al-Sāʿī, says is a “poet and a woman of wit about whom there is a written body of anecdotes.”

Marwan ibn Abi Hafsah apparently once found her weeping, after having been struck with a whip by al-Natifi. He said to her, “Inan weeps tears that scatter / like a broken string of pearls.” Ad she retorted, in verse, “May the tyrant’s right arm wither / as his cruel whip unfurls.”

7. Qasmuna (Dreaming)

The only choice here, naturally, is poetry by 12th-century Andalusian author Qasmuna bint Ismail, from whom we have three surviving poems. All have been translated by Yasmine Seale.

Here, Qasmuna dreaming of never being married off:

Doe, forever grazing

On meadows, we are sisters

In wildness, in the contrast

Between eye-white and iris.

Qasmuna bint Ismail, translated by Yasmine Seale, on The Sultan’s Seal

8. Malaak

A poem by Umra bint al-Hamaris (an Umayyad poet known for her humorous obscenities), translated by Wessam Elmeligi, tells of the unmarried daughter of al-Hamaris. It tells us:

The girl whose legs are shapely and knees are round

And who would rock and shake when a phallus is found?

Umra bint al-Hamaris, translated by Wessam Elmeligi

Find the whole poem in We Wrote in Symbols.

9. Tasakuba

That’s the only song that’s not my voice, it’s an educational video voiced by Kaltham Jassim reciting poems of Al-Khansa, a 7th century female poet. Several different translations appear online, none with a translator attributed. In an interview, Al Qadiri refers to this one:

Oh my eye/ Why do you not weep/ Like a waterfall/ At these desolating times.” 

10. Zandaq

And finally, also from Ulayya bint al-Mahdi, in We Wrote in Symbols, and translated by Wessam Elmeligi: “The heart for Rayb is yearnful / O Lord, how is that shameful?”

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Get the album here.

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